Saturday, July 30, 2011

Battle of the Crater

July 30, 1864:
After Lee held at bay Grant's attempt to seize Petersburg on June 15, the battle settled into a stalemate. Grant had learned a hard lesson at Cold Harbor about attacking Lee in a fortified position and was chafing at the inactivity to which Lee's trenches and forts had confined him. Finally, Lt. Col. Henry Pleasants, commanding the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry of Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside's IX Corps, offered a novel proposal to break the impasse.
Pleasants, a mining engineer from Pennsylvania in civilian life, proposed digging a long mine shaft underneath the Confederate lines and planting explosive charges directly underneath a fort (Elliott's Salient) in the middle of the Confederate First Corps line. If successful, this would not only kill all the defenders in the area, it would also open a hole in the Confederate defenses. If enough Union troops filled the breach quickly enough and drove into the Confederate rear area, the Confederates would not be able to muster enough force to drive them out, and Petersburg might fall. Burnside, whose reputation had suffered from his 1862 defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg and his poor performance earlier that year at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, gave Pleasants the go-ahead.
Digging began in late June, but even Grant and Meade saw the operation as, "A mere way to keep the men occupied," and doubted it of any actual strategic value. They quickly lost interest and Pleasants soon found himself with few materials for his project, to the extent that his men had to forage for wood to support the structure. Work progressed steadily, however. Earth was removed by hand and packed into improvised sledges made from cracker boxes fitted with handles, and the floor, wall, and ceiling of the mine were shored up with timbers from an abandoned wood mill and even from tearing down an old bridge. The shaft was elevated as it moved toward the Confederate lines to make sure moisture did not clog up the mine, and fresh air was pumped in via an ingenious air-exchange mechanism near the entrance; the miners kept a fire continually burning at the bottom of a single ventilation shaft located behind Union lines, near the entrance of the mine but behind a bulkhead isolating it from the outside air. Meanwhile, a wooden duct ran the entire length of the tunnel. The fire heated stale air, forcing it up the ventilation shaft and out of the mine. The resulting vacuum then sucked fresh air in from the mine entrance, and carried it through the wooden duct to the location where the miners were working. This precluded the need for additional ventilation shafts that could have been observed by the enemy, and served well in disguising the diggers' progress. On July 17, the main shaft reached under the Confederate position. Rumors of a mine construction soon reached the Confederates, but Lee refused to believe or act upon it for two weeks before commencing countermining attempts, which were sluggish and uncoordinated, and were unable to discover the mine. General John Pegram, whose batteries would be above the explosion, did, however, take the threat seriously enough to build a new line of trenches and artillery points behind his position as a precaution.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Religion And Government

Thomas Bushlack looks at the debt ceiling fight and Christian tradition:
When it comes to providing solutions to particular political dilemmas, there is always room for disagreement among honest and sincere Christians, and everyone else involved for that matter.  Thus, the short answer to my question is no, there is not one, distinctively Christian response to the current debate about the debt ceiling.  There are, however, fundamental principles at the root of the question, and the way in which one defines those principles will highlight the options available in distinctive ways.  On this point, I would argue that there are certain core principles that Christians are to consider when formulating a response to the current issue.
Drawing upon modern Catholic social thought and the work of Thomas Aquinas’ political thinking, the goal of law and political authority is to serve, enhance, and protect the common good of society (see, for example, Summa Theologiae I-II Q. 90).  It is perhaps ironic – or tragic – that the common good is the one element that seems to be missing from the current national debate.  This seems to be due to the fact that the ideology that holds the most momentum right now in our political system – and hence that controls the terms of our debate – is the far-right ideology represented most vocally by the tea-party movement (but engaged by others as well).  This ideology, rather than upholding the common good as the end and goal of government and law, sees government as the very source of the problem.  Therefore, those who propound this ideology are seizing upon this moment of debate over government spending, taxation and revenue creation, and the debt ceiling as an opportunity to starve government at its source by cutting off its supply of money.  Some of the more extreme elements seem entirely willing to let the whole system come to a crashing halt rather than think about long-term solutions that seek to protect the common good of all involved.
I have a hard time understanding why the so-called secular left understands this basic Christian tradition better than the so-called Christian right.  Maybe it is because the evangelical Christians tend to emphasize individual salvation more than traditional Christians (and also distrust Catholics)?  But the Europeans have long put this into action with their Christian Democratic Parties.  I don't quite get why evangelicals swallow so easily the libertarian parts of Tea Party orthodoxy.

Time And Whiskey

Clay Risen looks at the twin challenges of time versus cash flow and time versus taste for startup distillers:
One of the biggest obstacles facing a startup whiskey distiller is time. No matter how quickly you can turn yeast, water, and grains into alcohol, you still need to mature the product in oak barrels to get something you can legally call "whiskey." Most big distillers use 53-gallon charred barrels, which they fill, plug, and stick in an uninsulated warehouse for a few years—or longer, depending on the qualities they're looking for. During that time, the barrels impart color and flavor to the liquid, while absorption and evaporation remove unwanted chemicals. Eventually the distillers decide the whiskey is ready, move it into bottles, and ship them to stores.

All this waiting takes money—a lot of it, and all before you've sold your first bottle. If you're an established distiller, you're covering the upfront costs of your new batches with the profits you're making off the finished ones. But a startup doesn't have that sort of cash flow, which is why many new distillers start with "white" spirits like vodka and gin, then invest in whiskey once the money is flowing.

But the allure of producing brown liquor is a strong one, so for the last few years entrepreneurial types have been looking for ways around the time conundrum. Some have used "tea bags" of wood chips to increase the surface area of wood in contact with the liquid. Others use barrels with honeycomb patterns cut along their insides, to increase the surface area. Tuthilltown, in upstate New York, has even experimented with vibrations from bass-heavy music to agitate the aging whiskey, thus increasing the movement of the liquid against the wood.

The most popular trick, however, is to use smaller barrels—from five to 30 gallons, instead of the standard 53—to speed the aging process. The greater the surface area relative to the volume, the more contact the liquid will have with the wood. The result is, at first glance, impressive: brown color, woody flavor, and less bite than the unaged liquid you started with.
The most striking feature of a distillery tour is seeing the stacks of barrels in the warehouses.  It is a tough concept to understand that this whiskey will generally age at least six years prior to bottling.  That is a long time to wait for a return on investment.  Waiting until October is hard, when you buy inputs for the crop in December.  I can't imagine waiting until October 2017.  The fact that each barrel may age differently just adds to the complexity.  But if it turns out, those barrels are just money in the bank.  Patience is best, but it would be difficult.  Trying to satisfy investors makes it a challenge.  But quality should be the goal, not quick profits.

A Knockout With a Body Shot

Chris Jones describes the sick beauty of the well executed body shot:
Those many people don't know. I've taken a five-finger death punch like that, and let me tell you how it feels: A punch like that causes all sorts of strange satellite pain, express-delivered by your scrambled, panicking nervous system. You can feel a punch like that in the arches of your feet, in your balls, in your back, in your eyes. A punch like that somehow leaves you gasping for air and feeling as though you're full of air all at once. A punch like that makes you feel, frankly, like you're going to shit your trunks. But more than anything else, a punch like that puts a terrible picture in your head: You can see this black, spreading stain just under your skin, all of your body's essentials bleeding out and filling spaces where they don't have any business. A punch to the head can make you feel dizzy or woozy or sleepy, but it doesn't hurt, exactly. A punch like that one, like the one Hopkins slipped into De La Hoya, makes you feel as though you're about to die.
Body-shot knockouts are rare because of our modern obsession with the human head and its well-documented vulnerabilities; there's something almost hard-wired into us to equate punches with faces. Noses seem like a better target, because noses break, and besides, fans want to see blood. Body-shot knockouts aren't bloody until the victim tries to take a piss later. Body-shot knockouts also make it possible for fans to say that the opponent was weak or in the tank or just wanted to quit. They make it possible for the recipient to say that it was low or illegal or unsporting, the way Judah did on Saturday night. In a sport that often demands a more mathematical proof, body-shot knockouts are too abstract, too mysterious.
But they're beautiful precisely because of their rarity — because they're so fundamentally sound, because they require discipline and technique and art. Body-shot knockouts are boxing's equivalent of a great wraparound, open-field tackle in football, or those nights when Michael Jordan went after Grant Hill's ankles, because Jordan knew that's where Hill's worst weakness hid. They display an intelligence, a determination, a self-control that, for me, is far more impressive than fireworks.
Boxing is just a different sport.  The beauty is in the pain and sacrifice.  I think it actually takes a fighter to understand what the guys are going through.  They go beyond what people can comprehend.

Why Hedge Funds Are A Rip-off

Look at John Paulson's funds.  According to the article, Paulson's funds manage $38 billion.  One fund is down nearly 20% (admittedly, not all of his funds are performing this badly.  But even if they were, his company is going to bank $760 million just for their 2% management fee.  If the funds gain value, his firm gets 20% of those gains, too.  Heads, I win.  Tails, you lose.  That doesn't even begin to deal with how leverage will cause those gains and losses to be so dramatic.  Why "sophisticated" investors go for this rip-off, I don't understand.

Politicians and Engineers

All Things Considered revisits the debate about the Army Corps of Engineers handling of flooding on the Missouri River:
MCCAMMON: Jody Farhat is the chief of Corps' Missouri River Basin Water Management Office in Omaha, where decisions about water releases are made. She says any flooding is regrettable, but in a record year like this it's also unavoidable. She says the reservoirs are normally kept mostly full to support activities like recreation, navigation and hydropower. Think of a bathtub.
JODY FARHAT: What happened though, this year, that rain came in and filled up our bathtub and we still have essentially a fire hose coming into the reservoir system, with that mountain snowpack standing up there 135 to 140 percent of normal. So we needed a bigger drain.
MCCAMMON: But some elected leaders in downstream states say the Corps should leave more room in that bathtub to respond to floods. They accuse the Corps of favoring upstream states who, in normal years, want to hold back enough water for recreation.
Kansas Governor Sam Brownback wants an investigation of the Corps' management. Iowa's governor, Terry Branstad, has urged his colleagues in downstream states to form a group devoted to promoting their interests. He says the Missouri River Master Manual, a complicated series of guidelines last updated in 2004, just isn't working.
Governor TERRY BRANSTAD: When you have that kind of snowfall, it didn't take a rocket scientist to figure they should have been releasing more, earlier.
MIKE HAYDEN: One of the mistakes people make is thinking that the dams will provide flood protection.
MCCAMMON: That's Mike Hayden, a former Kansas governor and now executive director of the Missouri River Association of States and Tribes. He says dams can only reduce flooding, and he argues that letting water out of the reservoirs earlier would've caused even more problems on the Mississippi River.
HAYDEN: The rivers are connected. So when a drop of water falls at Three Forks, Montana, it ends up in New Orleans.
MCCAMMON: The Corps points out that communities up and down the Missouri River have flooded this year, the wettest since at least 1898. And if there's anything folks from Montana to Louisiana can agree on, it's the hope that a season this wet won't come around for another century.
I find this discussion very interesting, for a couple of reasons.  First, politicians generally don't understand hydrology and hydraulics.  The water is coming, and the dams can only hold so much back.  From what I heard, the Corps held back as much as they could, for as long as they could, so towns downstream could prepare for the floods as much as possible.  If they had released some of the water, flooding downstream would have come sooner, before the towns could adequately prepare, and the reservoirs still would have filled up.  Now, some other factors have been figured in, such as storing water to guarantee recreation or navigation during the summer, but those were all politically determined previously.  Don't get me wrong, engineers do make mistakes, but quite often, their hands are tied. 

Secondly, the politicians are complaining about the feds, because they can score some political points with the voters, but in the long run, it undermines good governance.  Unfortunately, most of the governors in the region are Republicans, so attacking the federal government as ineffective is good politics for them.  If the politicians don't like the flood control policy, tell the engineers how they want it changed.  The engineers will tell them what good and bad effects such a change will have, and the politicians can sign off on it.  Next time, politicians, don't bitch, you demagoguing jerks.

Short-term Thinking In a Long-term World

New Deal 2.0, via the nc links:
In a press release, entitled “American Business Leaders Call for Revolution in Energy Technology Innovation”, Doerr, the venture capitalist in the group, stated:
“When our company [Kleiner Perkins] shifted our attention to clean energy, we found the innovation cupboard was close to bare. America has simply neglected to support serious energy innovation. My partners and I found the best fuel cells, the best energy storage, and the best wind technologies were all born outside the United States. Other countries are investing huge amounts in these fields. Without innovation, we cannot build great energy companies. We need to restock the cupboard or be left behind.”
The corporate executives who constitute AEIC are looking for the US taxpayer to foot the bill for restocking the cupboard. What about contributions to a national clean energy effort by business corporations that ultimately stand to profit from these new technologies? Over the decade 2001-2010, the six corporations whose current or former leaders are represented on AEIC wasted a total of $185 billion — an average of $18.5 billion per year — buying back their stock, including $110 billion by Microsoft and $48 billion by General Electric. For these six companies over the past decade repurchases were 54% greater than R&D expenditures.
Innovation requires complementary investments by business and government. The government can only do so much, especially with free-market ideologues ranting that the government is already doing too much. A prime reason why the United States is no longer the “innovation nation” is because its major industrial corporations have been obsessed with “maximizing shareholder value” rather than investing in basic technology research.
The corporate world has changed a lot from the heydey of Bell Labs and PARC.  Today, corporations are only interested in their return to shareholders.  One part of that change is cultural, while the other part is based on compensation.  The cultural change involves the overaggressive understanding of maximizing shareholder returns.  This has become a short-term goal, unable to handle long-term investment.  Corporations used to take a long view of employees as part of the team, making the company stronger because they would be there for their whole careers.  Now they are numbers which must be slashed if profits suffer.  Likewise, they used to invest in research and development.  Much of that R & D might have been wasted as far as the products they were envisioned for was concerned.  But the payback came in the knowledge gained, which could be leveraged when other concepts developed.  Now the balance sheet is too fragile for such investments.  Short-term growth is financed by debt, to demonstrate better return on equity (easier if you have less equity), but long-term investment is starved.

The compensation side comes into play because too many top executives are granted large stock options as bonuses.  This tends to make the executives fall prey to the aggressive understanding of maximizing shareholder returns, as they are shareholders.  This would seem to be a good thing for shareholders.  Unfortunately, short-term gains benefit the executives significantly, guiding their decision-making to the shorter time horizon.  This is generally ok with the general shareholders, because they, too, aren't really looking at a long-term investment. 

This is at the heart of our current problems globally.  Everybody is looking for the quick and easy score.  Very few people are willing to invest long-term.  Corporations used to do this more often, and government also did.  Now people aren't willing to make such investments.  Corporations are interested in how to grab as much as they can, as fast as they can, and governments are being used as a source of easy money for these corporations.  Until we become willing to pay now to benefit later, we will continue to slide downhill.  We've put ourselves in the spot where we are already indebted from trying to put off paying for stuff we wanted previously.  Now, when we have no choice but to invest for the future, we can't afford to. 

In other words, the bill is due from past profligacy, and besides paying it, we need to dig even deeper to invest for the long-run.  I don't think we have the mettle necessary.

Young Ireland Revolt

Battle of Tipperary, July 29, 1848:
The Young Irelander Rebellion was a failed Irish nationalist uprising led by the Young Ireland movement. It took place on 29 July 1848 in the village of Ballingarry, County Tipperary. After being chased by a force of Young Irelanders and their supporters, an Irish Constabulary unit raided a house and took those inside as hostages. A several-hour gunfight followed, but the rebels fled after a large group of police reinforcements arrived.
It is sometimes called the Famine Rebellion (since it took place during the Great Irish Famine) or the Battle of Ballingarry.
Leaders William Smith O'Brien and Thomas Francis Meagher led a delegation to Paris to congratulate the new French Republic. Meagher returned to Ireland with a tricolour flag (now the national flag) – a symbol of reconciliation between the Orange and Green, made for them by French women who sympathized with their cause

Thursday, July 28, 2011

GOP Clown Show

How did we get to a point where we had so many morons as public servants?  I wouldn't vote the Republicans to run the county animal shelter, let alone the federal government.  These loons have been given everything they want, but it is never enough.  They can go jump off of a bridge. 

There are rumors that Boehner is going to get the Ohio GOP to give Jim Jordan a crappy district he could possibly lose to punish him for going off the reservation.  Unfortunately for this country, you can't draw a district including Jordan's home in which he might lose.  That's how screwed up western Ohio is.

Update:  If George W. Bush were still president and Democrats were pulling what the Republicans are right now, we'd have 24 hour treason coverage on Fox News.  I don't think the Republicans act is treasonous, I just think it is remarkably stupid.  They are looking to tank a fragile recovery to spite the president, the country be damned.  It is a really sad sight.

Foreign Land Grab

graphic from creditsesame, via Ritholtz:

The Home of Honky-Tonk Music

Los Angeles?  I guess so:
A fact that’s been nearly lost to music history in general, and to Southern Californians in particular, is that from the 1940s right through 1960, our part of the state was well known for country music. We had our own unvarnished sound before Buck Owens and Bakersfield rose to prominence in the early 1960s. Merle Travis and Wynn Stewart may be our most famous exports, but be sure to check out Skeets McDonald, Molly Bee, Cliff Crofford and Billy Mize—and they’re just the tip of the iceberg.
The performances of that time have a vitality and authenticity that’s lacking in today’s Nashville product. Once you’ve been introduced to the canon of SoCal country, you’ll be hooked. For this, we can thank the scores of Dust Bowl and southern migrants, who in the 1930s brought their fulsome musical traditions to the Golden State. To accommodate these newcomers and the impulses of those who already lived here, dance halls and honky-tonks blossomed like California poppies.
As we were discussing the genre’s recent past, Americana musician James Intveld, an avid student of the California-roots sound, asked me, “Have you ever written anything about the Riverside Rancho?” It was a simple question that led to the discovery of a wealth of glittering dance palaces and musky clubs that exist now only in memories.
As soon as I saw the picture, I figured this was because of the Dust Bowl migration of Okies.  Sure enough.  It is hard to see today's LA and picture a thriving country music scene, but 50 years will change a lot.

The Cost of Lawns

Charlie Gardner looks at the U.S. (and Canadian) lawn fetish, required setbacks and costs (via Yglesias):
Pollan's essay is about the historic and cultural significance of the American front lawn, not the American residential setback, but the two are in many ways inseparable.  As Pollan shows, the intent of the setback at the outset was to mandate a grassy front lawn, whether it was wanted or not  either cost, social pressure or concerns about resale value will tend to discourage creative alternatives to the bluegrass turf rolled out, for one's convenience, by the developer.  And what is the expense required to maintain all of this yard space?
While other countries routinely incorporate lawns into their detached single-family neighborhoods, it appears to be only England's colonial children — the United States, Canada, and to a somewhat lesser extent, Australia, New Zealand and a handful of other places — that have embraced the idea of large, decorative and open front lawns.

I too find grass to be appealing to look at, but I damn well hate mowing it.  There aren't too many jobs out there quite as wasteful and pointless.  Why can't Monsanto genetically-engineer grass which grows to 2", then looks the same the rest of the year?  Damn you, reproductive cycle of grasses.

First Boeing B-17 Flight

July 28, 1935

David Dobbs at Wired Magazine asks if it was the toughest plane ever built.  I would have to go with yes:

The  ”All American,” of the 97th Bomber Group, made arguably the most astonishing return. (The 97th operated out of Tunisia; among the astounding photos at this memorial site is one of Winston Churchill visiting a morning briefing. There’s also one of a B-17 ditching in the Mediterranean — the type of situation to which Angus, my mother’s lover, few rescue missions to salvage.) The huge gash in the plane’s section rose from a collision with an enemy fighter, whose wing sliced almost clean through the fuselage:
The tail gunner was trapped at the rear of the plane because the floor connecting his section to the rest of the plane was gone. The plane, piloted by a Lieutenant Kendrick Bragg, flew 90 minutes back to base with the tail barely hanging on. By one account, it wagged like a dog’s tail, and the pilot, after dropping his bombs, made a U-turn 70 miles across so as not to stress the tail.  When the plane landed and came to a stop, the tail finally broke off.
As the Reddog site notes, the All American got home because the designers built some redundancy into it. It was a very tough plane:
The ONLY reason that machine broke apart on landing is that, notice, the rear landing wheel has been carried away, and all the weight is being put on the bottom of the rear gunner’s station. The machine is not designed to do this with such structural damage.
Imagine being the tail gunner and having to ride in there for an hour-and-a-half while the tail swayed back and forth, and then riding through that landing.  The Wired article features many more amazing pictures.  I can't even imagine what the guys in those planes saw as they slowly flew back and forth through flak and fighter raids, awaiting potential death for more than 8 hours, day after day.

Chinese Infrastructure and American Supply Chain Weakness

A couple of items from the nc links.  First, MacroBusiness looks at the Chinese infrastructure investment plan, and its weaknesses:
high-speed rail accident has attracted a lot of attention.  Even the FT Lex coloumn has something to say about it, believing that the pace of investment should be slowed.  While I have been arguing here for a while that investment has to be slowed, it is rather harder to see if the “accident” can really be marked as the turning point of the Chinese investment-led growth model as some believe.
Before considering whether it is a turning point, let’s look beyond high-speed rail. And there is a spectacle to see, with more bad news concerning Chinese infrastructure besides the crashing high-speed rail. Four bridges have collapsed just this month on 11 July in Yancheng, Jiangsu, 14 July in Wuyishan, Fujian, 15 July in Hangzhou and 19 July in Beijing.
We have 4 bridges collapsed in 9 days, with another one with some sort of structural failure.  Truth be told, we probably all know that things in China aren’t as reliable as we wish.  Is the wave of “accidents” really unexpected?
Four bridge collapses?  Here is the story of one, built in 1987.  The pictures are amazing.  This article says that 3 of the bridges were 14 years old.  What a bunch of shoddy construction.  China is not in as good of shape as we think.  We can start fixing our problems if we get our heads out of our asses.  I don't know that the Chinese have the political will to fix some of their built-in problems. 

In the second story, Matt Stoller looks at the fragile supply chain in The Nation:
Lynn has continued to study industrial supply shocks and says, “What I have found most interesting recently is the apparent role supply chain shocks played in triggering a synchronized slowdown of industrial economies in April—production down (in USA, China, Europe, Southeast Asia), jobs down, demand down, GDP numbers down—due almost entirely to the loss of a single factory that makes microcontroller chips for cars.”
Today, the problem manifests as shortages of videotape or auto parts, but the global supply chain is so tangled and fragile that next time it could be electronics, weaponry, or even food or medicine. As Lynn noted in an interview with Dylan Ratigan, China controls 100 percent of the national supply of ascorbic acid, which is a basic food preservative. Leading oncologists are already warning that we are experiencing severe shortages of generic yet pivotal cancer drugs, because there’s no incentive for corporations to make them.
According to Lynn’s groundbreaking book End of the Line, the essential problem is a basic shift in the way that American multinationals operate. In the 1980s, the competitive manufacturing threat from Japan led most large companies to eliminate waste in their production facilities. As a result, they stopped keeping spare parts on hand. Eventually, companies began outsourcing production itself, as profits came increasingly from extractive monopolistic power over an economic system. Walmart is an important example; its profits come from the power it can exert on its suppliers, telling them what to make and how to make it, while the company itself functions as a giant autocratic marketplace and trading operation. Increasingly, this is the model of success in our global economy. Boeing, Cisco, Apple—all of them rely on their power over an ecosystem of production facilities halfway around the world. They have become rent extractive profit-machines, which is a relatively new phenomenon.
In some ways, the stories are interrelated.  Chinese corruption and shoddy construction leaves their infrastructure prone to failure.  U.S. corporate greed and shortsightedness leaves our industrial economy at risk of supply shortages and shutdown.  Even worse, where do our multinational corporations relocate industrial production, to China and India, where corrupt local officials and shoddy infrastructure are constant concerns.  There is a lot of bad stuff built into those two stories.  It is enough to get a person depressed, without even bringing up U.S. politics.  Things will get worse before they get better.

Butter Space Shuttle At Ohio State Fair

The Columbus Dispatch covers the unveiling of the butter sculptures Tuesday.  Yesterday was opening day of the Ohio State Fair.  This year, for the first time, the state fair is allowing wine tasting of Ohio wines and is selling beer at selected evening concerts.

Dan Ariely's Five Book Recommendations

At the Browser, via Mark Thoma:
Let’s go through the books, and you can tell me what’s important about them and why you like them. The first one on your list is The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us, by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons.

These are the guys who did one of the most important pieces of research in social science, which is to show how little we actually see in the world around us. The basic demonstration of this is a movie in which there are two groups playing basketball. One group is wearing white t-shirts and the other group is wearing black t-shirts. They are passing the ball, and the viewer is asked to count how many times the people in white t-shirts pass the ball to each other. What then happens in the background is a gorilla passes through. He stops right in the middle and thumps his chest. When the clip is over, the viewer is asked, “How many times did you see the people in white t-shirts pass the ball?” Sometimes they get it right, sometimes they get it wrong. But when you ask, “How many of you saw the gorilla?” it turns out very few people saw the gorilla.

I didn’t see the gorilla.

There’s also another demonstration in the book that I really like. This involves going up to someone on a campus with a map and saying, “Excuse me, can you help me figure out how to get to the student centre?” They take the map from your hand and start explaining it to you. While they’re explaining, two people in workmen’s clothes come between you with a door. For a moment, they obscure your view. What the person you’ve asked for directions doesn’t know is that you’re going away. You’re walking off with the door and a new person is standing in front of them. The question is, do people notice this change? And the answer is, again, no.
I find these topics to be very interesting.  Of course the perception issue addressed in The Invisible Gorilla seriously undermines the value of eyewitness testimony in criminal trials.  Recently, I heard a report on changes in police procedure to prevent mistaken statements in police line-ups.  One of the recommended changes was to tell the witness that the perpetrator might not be in the lineup, which reduced the likelihood of the witness choosing one of the people.  If they thought the person was in the lineup, they guessed whichever one looked the most like what they remembered.  That is a little scary.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Chesapeake Bay Hit With Impact of Farm Runoff

Washington Post, via Yglesias:
A giant underwater “dead zone” in the Chesapeake Bay is growing at an alarming rate because of unusually high nutrient pollution levels this year, according to Virginia and Maryland officials. They said the expanding area of oxygen-starved water is on track to become the bay’s largest ever.
This year’s Chesapeake Bay dead zone covers a third of the bay, stretching from the Baltimore Harbor to the bay’s mid-channel region in the Potomac River, about 83 miles, when it was last measured in late June. It has since expanded beyond the Potomac into Virginia, officials said.
Especially heavy flows of tainted water from the Susquehanna River brought as much nutrient pollution into the bay by May as normally comes in an entire average year, a Maryland Department of Natural Resources researcher said. As a result, “in Maryland we saw the worst June” ever for nutrient pollution, said Bruce Michael, director of the DNR’s resource assessment service.
That’s bad news for biologists who monitor the bay and horrible news for oysters and fish. Dead zones suck out oxygen from deep waters and kill any marine life that can’t get out of the way.
Nutrient pollution from chemicals such as fertilizers provide a feast for bay algae, which bloom and die in a rapid cycle. They decompose into a black glop that sucks oxygen out of deeper waters. Oysters and other shellfish are doomed in dead zones. Fish and crabs can skitter to surface waters where there’s more oxygen, but some don’t make it, Michael said.
That is just more bad news for farmers.  This is an issue we will have to address soon, if we don't the government will for us.  The report says that EPA's plan for the Chesapeake Bay watershed is being challenged by the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Association of Home Builders.  This strategy is pretty detrimental to the interests of agriculture.  AFBF is much better off working for and not against EPA.

China Beaches Have Algae Too

The sister tipped me off to pictures of algae-filled water in China.  Not pretty.

What To Expect

Warren Mosler says politicians trying to force large spending cuts by playing politics with the debt ceiling are misreading the possible economic outcome of not increasing the cap:
So what’s a patriotic politician to do? What solves the problem and, while there will be near term pain, minimizes the total long term pain? Yes, running out the clock and doing nothing, which is exactly what’s happening. And all the while trying to make sure your opposition gets the blame for the initial pain, while positioning yourself to take credit for the good that will surely follow. Is that not what’s happening?
They are dead wrong, of course, and, consequently, we’re all dead ducks, as the price of nothing is far higher than anything I’ve seen discussed anywhere. With the automatic fiscal stabilizers disabled (Treasury spending can’t increase in a slowdown, and in fact is forced to decrease as revenues fall) the downward acceleration of the economy from the sudden cut in government spending will be far more severe than anyone has begun to imagine. The lack of general concern for what might happen is directly evidenced by the current market complacency, allowing those properly alarmed to get their hedges in place at very attractive prices.

What happens in the do nothing scenario?
Stocks go down globally, the US dollar goes up, commodities go down, US Treasury rates fall, credit sensitive interest rates rise, sales and GDP fall, unemployment rises, all in the context of a general global deflationary spiral. (emphasis mine)
I don't have any idea what might happen if they can't work out a deal.  I fear the market should react very negatively to evidence that Republicans will never raise taxes, since some revenue increases are necessary to narrowing the deficit.  If half the country refuses to ever consider increasing taxes, even to the moderate levels of the 1990s, than default is nearly certain.  The fact that so many "lawmakers" are willing to play with fire to hold the line on lunatic ideas doesn't bode well for this country.  Everything I have heard from Republicans for the past 10 years has been so backward and misguided, that I can't trust anything they say.  The Bush tax cuts were stupid, and haven't done anything good.  The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were foolish, and were completely mismanaged by Bush.  The rampant deregulation led to the financial collapse, then any efforts to ameleorate that collapse have been fought tooth and nail.  Now they are trying to force huge spending cuts while demand in the economy is slack.  Check the UK, austerity didn't work.  If you are concerned about deficits, raise taxes on those who can afford to pay first, prior to slashing spending.  If there is one lesson from the past 30 years, it is that trickle-down economics does not work.  If the Republicans manage to drive the economy over a cliff again, they shouldn't win another election for 30 years.

Manure Spoils French Beaches

From Wired:
Vacationers in northwest France are being warned to stay away from beaches, which are growing a bumper crop of a seaweed that releases a potentially toxic gas. The culprit: Up-stream releases of manure from intensive farming that overload the near-shore waters with nitrates.
The seaweed (sea lettuce, Ulva lactuca) must be removed within 48 hours of washing ashore — because as it rots, it releases so much hydrogen sulfide that swimmers and strollers are endangered. The French ministry for health and the environment has warned visitors to avoid areas with overgrowth, and told workers scooping up the seaweed that they must wear monitors to alert them they have entered especially toxic pockets and must clear out within minutes.
The potentially toxic weed shows up every year in Brittany, but this year’s overgrowth is at least half again the size of last year’s, according to coverage in the The Telegraph and Radio France International.
The pressure group France Nature Environnement is running a campaign to raise awareness of the slime attack. It pins responsibility for it on concentrated swine and poultry farming: Brittany raises half of the pigs and chickens grown in France. According to the group, the manure from those farms is as much would be produced by 50 million people.
At least Grand Lake St. Mary's isn't the only place with the manure problem decimating tourism. 

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

A Night of Simpsons Trivia

Joshua Kurp describes his night at a Simpsons trivia contest.  I would not have done well:
I have no such excuse for the following questions that Puke’ also got wrong: -NASA knew their shuttle launches were in trouble when they were beaten by this program in the ratings
-Why did Ned Flanders feel responsible for his family falling ill to the Osaka Flu?
-Who told the funniest anecdote Troy McClure had ever heard?
(The correct answers are: A Connie Chung Christmas; Married...with Children; and Troy McClure, which, c’mon Pukahontas!)
We did, however, correctly guess Bi-Mon Sci-Fi Con; Staring at His Sandals/Paddling the Canoe; Queasy and Surly; and Cheese-Eating Surrender Monkeys, the final answer to the final question of the evening.
I know a good bit of Simpsons trivia, but nothing compared to the hardcore fans.

Bush Tax Cuts Did Work On One Level

Bruce Bartlett makes the same point I did a couple of posts back:
Few people remember that a major justification for the 2001 tax cut was to intentionally slash the budget surplus. President Bush said this repeatedly during the 2000 campaign, and it was reiterated in his February 2001 budget document.
In this regard, at least, the Bush-era tax cuts were highly successful. According to a recent C.B.O. report, they reduced revenue by at least $2.9 trillion below what it otherwise would have been between 2001 and 2011. Slower-than-expected growth reduced revenue by another $3.5 trillion.
Spending was $5.6 trillion higher than the C.B.O. anticipated for a total fiscal turnaround of $12 trillion. That is how a $6 trillion projected surplus turned into a cumulative deficit of $6 trillion.

I like how he put that, "In this regard, at least, the Bush-era tax cuts were highly successful."  So true.  It just kills me that the projected $6 trillion dollar surplus ended up a $6 trillion dollar deficit.  And according to Republicans, it's all Obama's fault.  What a bunch of clowns.

More From the Game

While at the Reds game last night, I finally got around to trying a goetta dog.  Having oat grains mixed into the sausage is kind of weird, but it tasted good. 

Chart of the Day

For the number-challenged, James Fallows highlights this NYT chart:

So who is bankrupting this country?  And what is the single biggest piece of the deficit?  Oh right, the tax cuts that were supposed to get rid of that dastardly surplus, create jobs and grow the economy.  Well, Mission Accomplished on the getting rid of the surplus part.

That's Great, But How Do You Feed 7 Billion People?

Sustainable agriculture in action:
Salatin, the high priest of "grass-farming," as he defines his work, hosts a field day every three years on his 550-acre spread in Swope, Virginia, in the hills of the Shenandoah Valley. Visitors have come from as far away as Florida and Iowa to trudge through the thick, soft pastures and see how Salatin raises cows, chickens, pigs, rabbits, and poultry. It is a brilliant sunny day, warm already at 8 a.m. on a Saturday.

Walking up a gentle slope, we come upon a herd of cows "mobbed" under a shady canopy, nibbling grass and depositing patties of natural fertilizer in the acre-or-so where they have been herded for the day. Tomorrow the white plastic electric fence—so thin it is hard to see in the brilliant sunlight—will be moved, the cows transferred to a new paddock so they can feast on a fresh "salad bar." Nearby, the chickens, in their big, floorless, corrugated tin-and-mesh mobile playpens are pecking at the cow patties left by the previous day's mob, picking out the fly larvae, aiding the composting process. Like so much on the farm, it is a virtuous cycle, the cows and chickens working together to create the rich soil, grass, and insect ecosystem.
I don't have a problem with low-intensity agriculture, but meat production at the scale of consumption in the United States, almost has to be industrial.  The numbers are just too big.  Then the question becomes, if oil becomes scarce, can we feed 7 billion people?

Even Forbes Says Rich Can Pay More

Robert Lenzner, blogging at Forbes (Forbes?!) via nc links:
The 400 richest Americans used to pay  30% of their income on the average to Uncle Sam. Today, they pay 18% on the average, according to Steve Rattner, a Wall Street financier, who just presented these figures on Mornings With Joe,MSNBC.
The main reason for the drop in their tax rate of some 40% is the tax cuts by George Bush in 2003, taking the rate paid on dividends and capital gains down to 15%. This reduction in the investment class’s taxes powered the bull market in stocks from the fall of 2003 until the fall of 2007.
Shockingly, the plan to raise the debt ceiling collects nothing from the wealthiest Americans to reduce our budget deficit. The Republican right wing holds the Obama White House hostage. It’s a sad day for the principle of sharing the pain equitably.
When Forbes is allowing such things to be posted, you know things are crazy.  I posted the whole thing, because it amazes me that more people aren't saying the bleeding obvious.  Obama has been terrible in this drama, by selling out the poor and the elderly while only trying to get very small sacrifices from the wealthy and corporations.  If it wasn't for the presence of the Republicans, who are just cruel in their willingness to crush those with nothing while protecting those with everything, he would look like a villian.  Instead, he looks like the reasonable guy in the room, because the rest of the room is filled with insane, serial killer types.  His proposals are so much more conservative than Reagan's in the 80s, it is amazing.  Yet the lunatic fringe in charge of the Republican party is so far out there that they consider him further left than Marx.  I hope the rural areas that the Tea Party dominates realizes that they will be poorer overall after Tea Party ideas are put in place, because they are net recipients of federal spending, while the coasts are net contributors.  But hey, you get what you deserve.

County Fairs Make The News

Fortune magazine takes a look at county fairs (specifically the San Diego County Fair) and their impact:
By the numbers:
$170 million: The estimated impact of the 22-day fair on the local economy. The livestock auction generated $432,271 in 2010.
100,000 pounds: The total amount of chicken sold by Chicken Charlie, the San Diego fair's top vendor in 2010. It was among 110 food booths catering to over 1.3 million total attendees.
6 million: The number of young people enrolled in 4-H (stands for Head, Heart, Hands, and Health) programs. Believe it or not, that's up from 1.9 million participants in the 1950s.
Sources: San Diego County Fair, Del Mar Fairgrounds, USDA-NIFA
You have to click through and look at the picture.  I am so glad I never had to wear a 4-H outfit like that.  I'm also glad I never showed dairy, and didn't have to wear one of those paper diner worker hats.

R.A. Dickey and the Mets Beat the Reds

R.A. Dickey used his knuckleball to limit the Reds to 8 hits, 2 runs and a walk over 6 2/3 innings last night in a 4-2 Mets win.  I went down to the game and watched him take warmup throws in the outfield, then made my way down to a good seat 5 rows from the field, between the batting screen and the first base dugout.  It was a great place to watch the game, especially considering I'd purchased a seat 3 levels up for $5.  Dickey has a more live arm than Tim Wakefield, with his best-looking knuckleballs hitting about 81 on the radar gun, and his occasional fastballs topping out at 89.  One of those 81 mph knuckleballs struck out Brandon Phillips, but got by catcher Josh Thole, allowing Phillips to advance to first.  It was fun getting to see a major league knuckleball pitcher up close.  One thing to note about the National League Central, the Reds and the Mets had the exact same 50-51 record coming into the game, the Reds were 3 games back while the Mets were 14.5 games back.

When I first came into town, I went up to the observation deck at Carew Tower.  It had probably been at least ten years since I had last gone up there. The view is really nice, although yesterday the visibility was limited by haze.  You can take a regular elevator to the 45th floor, then take a smaller elevator to the 48th floor, then take the stairs to the 49th floor.  You enter a little office and pay the attendant $2, and walk outside onto the deck.  The deck is surrounded by a chest-high wall with a railing on top.  When I walked out of the attendant's office and onto the deck, there was a college-age kid laying on top of the railing in the northeast corner while his friend was taking a picture.  Apparently, a local radio station was having a contest to send in the best "planking" photograph, and these guys had decided to try the Carew Tower observation deck.  Lucky for them, the attendant isn't very attentive, and they were able to try several times at different corners to come up with a good picture.  The last several attempts, the one guy would lay on the railing in the corner, while the other guy would stand on the wall, holding his camera above his head to try to get a good picture of the riverfront in the background of the photograph.  That was entertaining.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Who Are The Rich?

Amped Status looks at the top 1%, in terms of wealth, income and their sources (via the Big Picture):
The 99th to 99.5th percentiles largely include physicians, attorneys, upper middle management, and small business people who have done well. Everyone’s tax situation is, of course, a little different. On earned income in this group, we can figure somewhere around 25% to 30% of total pre-tax income will go to Federal, State, and Social Security taxes, leaving them with around $250k to $300k post tax. This group makes extensive use of 401-k’s, SEP-IRA’s, Defined Benefit Plans, and other retirement vehicles, which defer taxes until distribution during retirement. Typical would be yearly contributions in the $50k to $100k range, leaving our elite working group with yearly cash flows of $175k to $250k after taxes, or about $15k to $20k per month.
Until recently, most studies just broke out the top 1% as a group. Data on net worth distributions within the top 1% indicate that one enters the top 0.5% with about $1.8M, the top 0.25% with $3.1M, the top 0.10% with $5.5M and the top 0.01% with $24.4M. Wealth distribution is highly skewed towards the top 0.01%, increasing the overall average for this group. The net worth for those in the lower half of the top 1% is usually achieved after decades of education, hard work, saving and investing as a professional or small business person. While an after-tax income of $175k to $250k and net worth in the $1.2M to $1.8M range may seem like a lot of money to most Americans, it doesn’t really buy freedom from financial worry or access to the true corridors of power and money. That doesn’t become frequent until we reach the top 0.1%.
I’ve had many discussions in the last few years with clients with “only” $5M or under in assets, those in the 99th to 99.9th percentiles, as to whether they have enough money to retire or stay retired. That may sound strange to the 99% not in this group but generally accepted “safe” retirement distribution rates for a 30 year period are in the 3-5% range with 4% as the current industry standard. Assuming that the lower end of the top 1% has, say, $1.2M in investment assets, their retirement income will be about $50k per year plus maybe $30k-$40k from Social Security, so let’s say $90k per year pre-tax and $75-$80k post-tax if they wish to plan for 30 years of withdrawals. For those with $1.8M in retirement assets, that rises to around $120-150k pretax per year and around $100k after tax. If someone retires with $5M today, roughly the beginning rung for entry into the top 0.1%, they can reasonably expect an income of $240k pretax and around $190k post tax, including Social Security.
While income and lifestyle are all relative, an after-tax income between $6.6k and $8.3k per month today will hardly buy the fantasy lifestyles that Americans see on TV and would consider “rich”. In many areas in California or the East Coast, this positions one squarely in the hard working upper-middle class, and strict budgeting will be essential.
According to the post, to be exceptionally wealthy, a person is almost invariably involved in finance or banking.  Why?  Why don't more professionals and people running goods-producing business break into the ranks?  Why does finance hold the keys to power?  Access to leverage?  The ability to siphon off profits from the work of others?  With that wealth comes access to power, and nothing has been beeter better demonstrated in the financial collapse than the power of people running our banks.  It is well past time to clip their wings.  Dodd-Frank is a miserable failure, we should go to much stronger regulation of the finance sector and much higher marginal taxation of extreme income, while we have the example of the FIRE sector's failure.

Homegrown Terrorism

Charlie Pierce looks at the attempted bombing in Spokane in January, other recent incidents, and their roots:
The past two years have seen not only an unprecedented spike in these kinds of events but also a curious tolerance for the kind of
unhinged rhetoric that used to be found only among our more exotic political fauna. Years ago, when the John Birch Society accused Dwight Eisenhower of being a "conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy," it was laughed out of conservative politics and into the political wilderness. Today, while the unfounded speculation about the place of Barack Obama's birth may well have been interred with the bones of the Trump for President campaign, it is still perfectly respectable within conservative politics to infer that the president is somehow less of an American by his very nature, which must be different from "our" own.
It began almost immediately with his election, despite the fact that, ironically, he spends more time telling his fellow Americans how great they are than any four of his predecessors combined. By his fifth month in office, the major television networks were carrying scenes of people at political gatherings, sobbing that they "want their country back." From whom was never really explored.
There was something visceral to the anger. As daffy as many of them were, most of the attacks on Bill Clinton were recognizably political. His attempts to reform health care were criticized merely as bad policy. The attacks on Obama have been different. It is not merely that he is black, although that is undeniably part of what's going on. The attacks on Obama are attempting to affix to him the blame for a genuine feeling of economic and social dislocation that arose when the economic system nearly collapsed entirely before the 2008 elections.
When Michele Bachmann, a member of Congress, states publicly that she is running for president "to take our country back," she is not talking about clawing back the money and jobs and basic security that were sluiced away into the investment banks. She's focusing those fears and that insecurity on one person and on what she believes he represents. Politicians used to say that they would bring America back, or that they would restore America to its former greatness, or wrap their policies in some such fluffy rhetorical excelsior. Today, though, it is perfectly acceptable to intimate, as Bachmann does, and as those hundreds of people at the congressional town meetings said outright, that America is not here anymore. That someone has stolen it away. America is no longer a political commonwealth of shared ideas that its citizens can restore. It is objectified, something tangible, something that a stranger has broken in and stolen. And if that's the case, why be surprised when someone tries to take "our country back" the way you might confront a midnight prowler in the living room?
While I think race plays a significant part in the opposition to Obama, I really don't understand why so many people come unglued when we have a Democratic president.  We went through the exact same thing with Clinton, and both Clinton and Obama are comparable to Eisenhower, and even Nixon Republicans of old.  Heck, right now Obama's debt ceiling negotiating offers are to the right of Ronald Reagan's proposals in 1986.  Reagan raised taxes several times to reduce the deficit, but now that just isn't allowed.  What country are these people trying to get back?  I think the political tenor of the times is much more conservative than in the past.  Socially, they will never get back to the past, and if it is a white one, they are screwed, and deservedly so.

Deere Involved In Bandwidth Fight

Des Moines Register:
After focusing on moving earth for agriculture and industry for most of its 174-year history, Deere & Co. now is fighting for its place in the skies.

Deere Chairman and CEO Samuel Allen has aligned the manufacturer with military and aviation interests against a broadband proposal by Virginia-based LightSquared. Allen said LightSquared's proposal for 40,000 new cellphone towers in rural areas would push the global-positioning systems in farmers' tractors and combines farther down the band, compromising movements across the fields. "It's not a money issue for us; we contract with GPS providers," Allen said. "But precision agriculture is vital."

LightSquared has said it would resolve potential interference for most GPS users.

The Federal Communications Commission is due to report on the matter later this summer, but Allen thinks ultimately Congress will make the final call.
This is an interesting fight.  While GPS has come a long way in the ag field, there's still a lot of room for improvement.  A fight for bandwidth should be pretty interesting.

Why The Debt Ceiling Fight?

Elizabeth Drew analyzes the motivating factors of all the players in the debt ceiling fight at the New York Review of Books (via nc links):
The Republicans displayed a recklessness that should have disqualified them from being taken seriously. Any deal that was reached would contain substantial cuts in the coming fiscal year—too soon, as Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and the head of the Congressional Budget Office Doug Elmendorf have recently warned. The antitax dogma of the Republican Party is strongly rooted in mythology. The theory that tax cuts create jobs has been discredited by the results of George Bush’s tax policies. The Republicans cling to the myth that “small business” owners are the “job creators,” and so they oppose proposals to eliminate the Bush rate cuts for even those earning over $250,000. But relatively few small business owners earn $250,000—in fact, fewer than 3 percent of the 20 million people who file business income on their personal tax forms (the 1040s) earn that much.
Finally, the antitax position of many conservatives would seem to be illogical, since they also hate deficits: but their real aim is to reduce or eliminate federal programs. They call efforts to redistribute wealth “socialism,” but have no problem redistributing from the poor and middle class to the wealthy through taxes, as set forth in Paul Ryan’s budget plan, which the House approved on April 15. Under the Ryan plan, the taxes of the richest one percent of Americans would be cut in half, while taxes would be raised on most of the middle class. People earning over $1 million would be taxed at a lower effective rate than the middle class.
Consistent with the philosophy of Ryan’s idol Ayn Rand, this scheme would by 2050 eliminate virtually all federal programs other than defense and Social Security, much of which would be privatized, while his voucher program would replace Medicare. The Ryan plan was so radical that even Republican candidates have been distancing themselves from it though the party higher-ups had declared it a “litmus test” for Republicans seeking office.
The Ryan plan is an abomination, and the fact that it is seen as the baseline for the Republicans demonstrates how far onto the fringe the GOP has gone.  Obama has tried to pave the way for re-election by pushing for a deal, even on very generous terms for the Republicans.  But the Republicans ignore all common sense and obvious facts and hold to their ridiculous faith in the markets and tax cuts, the leading drivers of our current economic situation and giant deficits, along with their foolish wars.  Government programs and entitlements need adjusted, but taxes have to go up, especially on the extremely wealthy.  This radical hostage-taking of the U.S. economy should make Republicans unelectable, but I have very little faith in the wisdom of voters, especially in rural areas.  Combined with the laziness of Democratic voters who only show up to vote in presidential elections, we have quite the mess.  Even after the debacle of the 2008 election for Republicans, they have managed to dig in harder and double-down on bad ideas.  They fought tooth-and-nail to prevent any action which might ease the economic slowdown, won a lot of useless tax cuts in the stimulus plan, then didn't cast a single vote for it.  But amazingly, people returned them to power in the House of Representatives and most state legislatures and governors' offices in 2010.  After that win, Republicans slashed spending, and often taxes, making even more people unemployed, when our worst problem is unemployment.  Now Obama is offering them the farm, and they want more.  It will not end well.  Republicans are bent on the destruction of the modern state, even though the consequences of this will be very bad for the average American.  For some reason, many people who will suffer, root them on and give them support.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

A Bit of Rain

We got 0.65 inches of rain this afternoon at the home place.  That was much needed.  The corn was just starting to tassel there, and the beans could also use it a lot.  I won't even get into how bad my hay field looked when I made the second cutting.  Hopefully we'll get some more rain later this week.

Wakefield Wins 199th


Tim Wakefield (6-3) joined Roger Clemens as the only pitchers to strike out 2,000 batters with Boston and moved one win away from his 200th victory. But the 44-year-old knuckleballer left after giving up Brendan Ryan's grand slam that cut the lead to 11-7 with one out in the seventh.
He got the win, but the pitching line wasn't very pretty.  6 1/3 innings pitched, 10 hits, 7 runs, all earned, 1 walk, 4 strikeouts.  Tomorrow, R.A. Dickey is scheduled to start against the Reds in Cincinnati.  I'm planning on attending. 

NASA Photo of the Day

From July 20:

Noctilucent Clouds Over Edmonton
Image Credit: Greg Scratchley (RASC Edmonton)
Explanation: Sometimes it's night on the ground but day in the air. As the Earth rotates to eclipse the Sun, sunset rises up from the ground. Therefore, at sunset on the ground, sunlight still shines on clouds above. Under usual circumstances, a pretty sunset might be visible, but unusual noctilucent clouds float so high up they can be seen well after dark. Normally too dim to be seen, they may become visible at sunset during late summer when illuminated by sunlight from below. Noctilucent clouds are the highest clouds known and thought to be part of polar mesospheric clouds. Pictured above earlier this month, a network of noctilucent clouds cast an eerie white glow after dusk, above the the city of Edmonton, in Alberta, Canada. Much about noctilucent clouds has been discovered only over the past few years, while how they form and evolve remains a topic of active research.

The Pine Tar Incident

July 24, 1983:

Watching George Brett come off of the bench makes the whole video worthwhile.

The Rise and Fall of Prohibition

I just finished reading Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, by Daniel Okrent.  The book is excellent.  It provides the history of the temperance movement, the Anti-Saloon League and the progressive movement in general.  It covers the racism and xenophobia which helped pass Prohibition, along with the temperance movement's support of the income tax and women's suffrage to advance their goal. 

The coverage of the legal and extralegal methods of accessing booze was fascinating.  I didn't realize that home brewing, cider making and wine making was legal, or that sacramental wine was legal or that doctors could prescribe pints of whiskey for medicinal purposes. 

Reading the story, I saw a dilemma.  I felt no sympathy for the temperance movement and the anti-immigrant policies of the progressives, yet I also supported the idea of the income tax and women's suffrage.  Meanwhile, when the right-wing began to support repealing Prohibition so they could try to kill the income tax, I could only agree with the repealing Prohibition part.  It reminded me that I generally can't get behind all the ideas of any political or ideological group, and take more of the 'cafeteria Catholic' approach to politics.  I, like most people, tend to expect somebody will be 'right' in my opinion on every issue, but really, that person isn't out there.  The various policies of the progressive movement and Teddy Roosevelt at the turn of the 20th century reminded me of that fact.

Very Big Numbers

Want some numbers that are even bigger than the ones in our national debt "debate?"  Try this NASA report out (via nc links):
Two teams of astronomers have discovered the largest and farthest reservoir of water ever detected in the universe. The water, equivalent to 140 trillion times all the water in the world's ocean, surrounds a huge, feeding black hole, called a quasar, more than 12 billion light-years away.
"The environment around this quasar is very unique in that it's producing this huge mass of water," said Matt Bradford, a scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "It's another demonstration that water is pervasive throughout the universe, even at the very earliest times." Bradford leads one of the teams that made the discovery. His team's research is partially funded by NASA and appears in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.
A quasar is powered by an enormous black hole that steadily consumes a surrounding disk of gas and dust. As it eats, the quasar spews out huge amounts of energy. Both groups of astronomers studied a particular quasar called APM 08279+5255, which harbors a black hole 20 billion times more massive than the sun and produces as much energy as a thousand trillion suns.
Now a thousand trillion is a quadrillion here in the states, right?  I wish they used gazillion.

The Cult of Finance

Umair Haque makes the case that finance is a cult (via the Big Picture):
In the last post, I suggested that modern-day "finance" as we know it has little to nothing to do with (real) economics. Where economics is about creating authentic value, igniting positive sum games, discovering pathways to prosperity, finance is (or has become) about reshuffling yesterday's value, extracting the lion's share in zero sum games.

Yet, the self-appointed sheriff of the global economy--the master "trader"; in reality, a mere jumpsuited technician of a lethally dysfunctional machine--is viewed as the modern-day equivalent of a mystical seer, a Delphic oracle, whose visions earn the indisputable right to luxuries and riches beyond the most avaricious dreams of the kings of yore.

All of which raises the question: if modern-day finance isn't (about) economics, then what is it? I'd like to suggest it's nothing more than--and nothing less than--a cult.
He makes a pretty good case, and listening to some Tea Partiers talking about the efficiency of the markets (among other topics) reminds one of a person who is willing to drink the Kool-aid if told to.  The bosses on Wall Street should have been brought down off of their pedestals after driving the global economy in the ditch, but they've been bailed out, and still don't have the decency to pick up some humility along the way.  The fact that so many people who have very little are willing to carry their water for them blows me away.